- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

HOUSTON. — Some people were just born too late. For instance, Rodney Harrison, the Patriots’ merciless strong safety, would have fit in perfectly around the time of, oh, Attila. (In any matchup between Harrison and the gates of Rome, I’ll take Rodney and give the points.)

I’m pulling your leg, of course — something Harrison has no doubt done more than once to a ball carrier at the bottom of the pile. He’s is the kind of player you don’t want to turn your back on … unless you like wearing cervical collars.

Rodney has been fined so often by the NFL that he could qualify as a charitable organization. By his own estimate, he’s contributed more than $300,000 to the league’s worthy causes, including $40,000 this season for (a) using excessive force on Giants receiver Drew Bennett and (b) bumping an official in Miami. Still, it’s an improvement over last year, when he had his wallet lightened three times — and served a one-game suspension for administering a helmet-to-helmet how-do-you-do to Jerry Rice.

Harrison is an enforcer, a hit man, what the skating set calls a goon. And that, really, was all most folks knew about him during his nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers. He was Rodney Harrison, the guy who blew out Trent Green’s knee in a preseason game, never Rodney Harrison, the two-time Pro Bowl player. Such is the burden of playing for a losing, largely invisible, team. You’re so little seen that you run the risk of becoming a caricature of yourself.

There’s much more to Harrison than that, though, as he’s been demonstrating since he joined the Patriots as a free agent this year. We’re not just talking about a one-dimensional headhunter here — an Andre Waters, a Chuck Cecil. We’re talking about one of the very best players in the NFL, a safety who can tackle, pass defend, blitz, do it all. About the only reason he hasn’t made a half-dozen Pro Bowls, and established himself as the Ronnie Lott of his generation, is that he isn’t exactly popular among his peers. He’s the real He Hate Me.

The Patriots had their doubts about him, too, when he started wreaking his particular brand of havoc in training camp. One of the first few days, he clocked club icon Troy Brown, which drew an admonishment even from fellow DB Ty Law. Later on, he ransacked running back Kevin Faulk, provoking a skirmish between the offense and the defense.

“When I first came in,” he said yesterday, “I didn’t make any friends. All I made was enemies. Nobody wanted to talk to me. But it wasn’t about me making friends. It was about me showing I still had some gas left in the tank [at 30].”

What the Pats didn’t understand about Harrison at first was that he only knows one way to play — “at 1,000 rpms,” as he puts it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a workout in July or, this week, the Super Bowl. He’s going to lay a body on you.

The key to playing strong safety is “no secret,” he said. “Just hit somebody in the mouth, be physical and don’t give up the big play. The league has fined me time and time again, but it hasn’t changed what I do. It’s controlled violence. … Intimidation is part of everybody’s game. When you see receivers looking at you, running backs looking at you, quarterbacks looking at you, you know you’ve got ‘em.”

So Harrison didn’t make the greatest first impression with his new teammates. (It didn’t help any that strong safety Lawyer Milloy, one of the most respected members of the club, was released just before the regular season when he refused a pay cut.) Soon enough, however, the Patriots began to appreciate what Rodney did — so much that he was asked to be a co-captain, to fill the spot vacated by Milloy. The honor, he said, “meant the world to me,” and as the year progressed he “calmed down a lot” and stopped mauling his mates quite so much in practice.

Which doesn’t mean he’s mellowed or anything like that. On game days, he still plays “with a chip on my shoulder, an inner rage.” Who knows where it comes from? Maybe, he suggested, it’s the result of being told for so many years that “I wasn’t going to make it, that I was too small, too slow, too weak.” College recruiters hardly knocked down his door, which is why he wound up at Western Illinois, and NFL scouts were only moderately impressed with him, which explains how he lasted until the fifth round of the draft.

Then again, maybe the rage goes back farther than that, to a youth spent on the mean streets of Chicago’s south side — no father around, an older brother who liked to use him as a punching bag, a mother who was so strapped for cash that she once “took the $40 for the light bill and used it to sign me up for my first season of football.”

Growing up in that environment, he said, “it would have been easy to get caught up in selling drugs, going for the easy money, getting a girl pregnant when you’re 15, not doing the right thing. My mom did a great job of protecting me from the streets. Sent me to Catholic school.”

And Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, Barbara Harrison’s boy figures to play one of the lead roles in the great drama known as the Super Bowl. He intercepted a pass in the Patriots’ first playoff game, had a pick and a forced fumble in the second. This week, properly aroused, he might well turn Steve Smith into a human bobblehead.

“I play football the way it’s meant to be played,” he said. “All the Hall of Famers used to hit the way I hit — and now I’m getting fined $100,000 for it.”

It ain’t easy being Rodney Harrison. But it’s even harder being on the other side of the line from him.

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